Some of the sword hilt fittings, image courtesy of the Staffordshire Hoard website photograph set on Flickr.
A hoard of over 1500 gold and silver artefacts of extremely high quality, many decorated with precious stones, has been discovered in Staffordshire. It has been declared as treasure trove. The date of the hoard is uncertain, but according to the summary report on the official website, the objects analysed so far can be dated on stylistic grounds to the period between the late sixth and early eighth century. A Biblical inscription on a gold strip and two, possibly three, gold crosses may indicate that at least some of the objects may have originally had Christian owners. The date of the inscription is uncertain, with late seventh/early eighth century and eighth/ninth century both suggested. (It should be noted that different objects within a hoard can be of different ages, and that the date of the latest object in the assemblage gives the earliest date at which the hoard could have been buried).
The exact location of the find has not been released. A press report said the site was somewhere near Lichfield. The official website says “in the heartland of the Kingdom of Mercia”, which would be consistent with a location near Lichfield.
Most of the objects are associated with weapons and war gear, e.g. 84 pommel caps and 71 hilt fittings from swords or seaxes (a seax was a long fighting knife or short sword) have been identified so far. Some of the items may be helmet fittings, although it is not yet known how many helmets they represent. There are no dress fittings, brooches or jewellery normally associated with women, and there are no buckles, baldric fittings or strap-ends.
Whatever its origin and whoever buried it, the hoard so far looks like a large collection of very high-status military equipment.
The importance of the hoard can hardly be overstated. It will be fascinating to see what further information emerges from research on the hoard over the next few years.
Much more information, including pictures, on the official website. It was a bit slow to load this morning, and now appears to be down altogether (no doubt due to pressure of traffic following this morning’s announcement!), but I daresay it will come back to life in a few days once the fuss has died down. So far the press reports I’ve read mostly seem to be rephrasing the official press release.
More photos on the Staffordshire Hoard set on Flickr.
Okay, so where might the hoard have come from and who might have buried it? This is essentially speculation, but hey, speculation is fun.
The enormous wealth represented, both by the sheer quantity of precious metal and the very high quality of the craftsmanship, is indicative that the original objects belonged to people of very high status. A reasonably logical inference is that the hoard itself also belonged to a person or group of very high status. (I suppose it could be the results of the greatest ever early medieval jewel heist, but let’s apply Occam’s Razor for the time being.) The amount of precious metal is several times greater than in the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and the craftsmanship appears to be as high, as far as I can tell from the photographs, so we can reasonably infer that the hoard also belonged to someone right at the top of society, i.e. a king.
The hoard was found in Staffordshire, possibly near Lichfield. The area that is now Staffordshire was the heart of the early medieval 'Anglo-Saxon' Kingdom of Mercia. The kings of Mercia had a royal centre at Tamworth, and the Mercian bishopric (later, temporarily, an archbishopric) was based at Lichfield. The most likely people to have owned a vast amount of wealth that ended up buried near the royal centres of the Kingdom of Mercia are, logically, the kings of Mercia.
One of the Christian crosses in the hoard had been folded up as if to squash it into a small space, and it has been suggested that this may indicate that the hoard was buried by pagans. However, I wouldn’t myself put too much weight on that. It seems to me quite possible that the cross could have been squashed when the hoard was buried, especially if it was buried in a hurry in times of trouble, and the folding may represent haste rather than disrespect as such. Unless there's more evidence, I’m not convinced that the folded cross tells us much, if anything, about the religion of the people who buried the hoard, as distinct from the circumstances of the deposition.
The overwhelming predominance of military objects in the hoard suggests that it represents the result of a specific selection process rather than a random collection of valuable objects. It may be that the royal treasury of Mercia was carefully sorted, with military gear kept in one place, jewellery in another, coins in another, precious tableware in another etc, and we just happen to have found the military component. Another possibility is that the hoard represents a sort of “trophy cabinet”, a collection of weapons and armour taken from defeated enemies or tributary kings and displayed prominently in the royal hall or royal church to demonstrate the king’s power and military success.
So far, the date range of the objects covers the late sixth to early eighth century, possibly into the eighth/ninth century if the later date for the inscription is confirmed. Mercia was not short of highly successful and aggressive kings pursuing military expansion at the expense of their neighbours during this period, starting with Penda (c. 633 to 655) and going through to Aethelbald (716-757) and Offa, of Offa’s Dyke fame (757-796). It would not be at all surprising if one or several of these kings (or indeed others whose names have not come down to us) had accumulated a large collection of military trophies taken as booty from defeated enemies, tribute from subordinate rulers and/or gifts from allies. The hoard could have been acquired all of a piece by one of the later kings, or successively added to by several generations. Detailed research might generate sufficient evidence to tell which.
So far, no object in the hoard needs to be dated to later than the early eighth century (although this may change depending on the dating of the inscription). However, that doesn’t mean the hoard was buried then. It may have been buried later, perhaps considerably later, than the latest object within it.
Why might the hoard have been buried? Ritual deposit is one possibility, but a common reason for burying a treasure hoard is to keep it safe from real or perceived enemies in times of trouble. Early medieval Mercia wasn’t short of trouble. Its militarily aggressive kings didn’t always win their wars against other kingdoms, and domestic politics could be violent. For example, Aethelbald, Offa’s predecessor, was assassinated in 757 and Offa had to fight his way to the throne. In the early ninth century Mercia was defeated by the kings of Wessex, and in the mid ninth century the Danes (Vikings if you prefer) arrived and took control. Incidents such as these – and no doubt many others – could provide a context in which a king’s hoard could be buried for safekeeping and the location subsequently lost.
If detailed research confirms the dating as early eighth century, I’d probably look to the political turmoil surrounding Aethelbald’s death and Offa’s accession in 757-758 as a plausible context for the deposition of the hoard. If the dating moves into the ninth century, then the Danish invasion begins to come to the fore as a possibility.
The Staffordshire Hoard looks like one of the most significant finds since Sutton Hoo, and it will be interesting to see what further research can tell us about the hoard and the society from which it came.
Edit: Coverage of the find on BBC Radio 4's PM news programme is available on the BBC iPlayer for the next 7 days. It's the lead item on the news sumamry at the beginning, then fast forward to 5 minutes in for the start of the report and interviews. The interview with historian Michael Wood is especially interesting, He draws the same possible connection with the royal Mercian bishopric at Lichfield, founded by St Chad, as I mention in the post.
Edit: Interesting discussion of the find by Jonathan Jarrett on Cliopatria.